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Blurring the lines between nightwear and ready-to-wear, Olivia Von Halle launched her debut collection at London Fashion Week in 2011. Rewind three years and adjust your clocks to China Standard Time, to a then 24-year-old Olivia working in Shanghai as a trend forecaster for creative agencies and luxury brands.
Having lived and worked in the cosmopolitan metropolis, Olivia can attest to its urbane beauty and – in welcoming so many visitors over her two-year residency – has pretty much nailed the 24 hours in Shanghai itinerary. “Spring and autumn are the best times to visit. Winter is cold and wet but is one of my favourite times to be in China, the smell of chestnuts cooking on the streets and the crisp air can be divine.”
Inspired by the decadence and glamour of the 1920s – and the lounging pyjamas worn by Coco Chanel and her contemporaries – it was in Shanghai that the first sparks of inspiration ignited for Olivia. “The Shanghainese are famous for spending all weekend wandering about the city in their silk pyjamas and so of course that was an influence.”
The brand has grown exponentially since its launch – its acceleration perhaps symptomatic of Shanghai’s trademark lightning pace. “Shanghai makes New York look slow. Since living there, almost every single restaurant, bar and club I visited has been replaced several times over with the new “it” place. However, some things don’t change…”
How has Shanghai influenced your designs?
Shanghai is the birthplace of my brand and where I had the idea to start it. I had the most incredible tailor there – he was every girl’s wildest dream and could replicate Lanvin dresses from pages torn out of Vogue. One day, I started fantasising about how glamorous it would be to have a beautiful pair of printed silk pyjamas to lounge around in and my tailor made me a pair. I instantly became obsessed with them and started wearing them all the time. Friends begged me to make them some and before I knew it I had an order list longer than my tailor could ever manage, so I decided to launch the Olivia von Halle brand. We still make 90% of our production out there.
What’s the city’s dress code?
There really isn’t one, Shanghai is incredibly relaxed and you can go anywhere wearing anything – you will never be turned away from somewhere for not looking smart enough. I love to dress up and that always goes down well too!
Which are your favourite Shanghainese designers?
I love by Fang, her work is amazing. I was in Shanghai recently and we visited her new atelier in the French Concession which is well worth a visit.
How should we spend 48 hours Shanghai?
A bottomless “all-you-can-eat and-drink” brunch at one of Shanghai’s many hotels is a cracking way to start the weekend. Massages aren’t a special treat here, meaning they are cheap – and seen as a necessary thing to do to stay healthy, like exercising. It is as normal to meet someone for a foot massage as a coffee in Shanghai. A trip to the Bund, built by the British in the 1930s, to go and see the skyscrapers of Pudong rising up out of the Huangpu river is standard procedure. On my many trips to Shanghai I’ve been told by the flight attendants that the reason Shanghai is the most requested trip by them is the shopping – specifically the fake markets. You can buy absolutely everything here from bags to sunglasses to whole fake stores. While nearly all of it is fake, there are some real pieces worth keeping an eye out for… Finally, a potter around the French concession and trying the huge array of not just Shanghainese but also Yunanese, Hunanese, Sichuan and Cantonese food on offer is always a good afternoon activity.
Which is your favourite area in the city?
I lived in the same apartment in the French concession for two years so of course I have to say there. It’s certainly the most beautiful, built by the French in art-deco style with beautiful little lane houses and wide tree-lined avenues. It’s wonderfully vibrant and filled with shops, cafés restaurants and bars, and a wonderful place to take in the street life that is such an important part of any visit to China.
Where’s the best place to wake up?
Amanyangyun is just outside downtown Shanghai and is the perfect place to go and get away from the city, visit the spa and get a good night’s sleep.
Where should we go for Sunday brunch?
Swimming pool at the Puli, running along the new West-Bund-side track and making like the locals by using the community exercise machines in residential alleys.
Subconscious Spa in the French Concession is really good value and the treatments are fantastic. When I’m in Shanghai for work I come here every day once I’ve finished my meetings.
For silk shopping we should head to…
The silk market. You can have anything made there from silk dresses to cashmere coats but it’s best to copy something you already have, or ask for things that you can see there with slight alterations. Bargain like mad and everything can be delivered to your hotel in a couple of days.
What are the must-try foods in Shanghai?
Scallion pancake, hairy crab, dough sticks, steaming soft tofu soup, fried onion noodles and the inimitable xiaolongbao soup dumplings.
The best spot for street food is…
There aren’t many places left on the streets anymore, but Dinxi Lu next to Zhongshan Park still has some great street food, especially early in the morning and late at night.
What about for dinner with friends?
Together is a new French-Korean restaurant that everyone is desperate to go to.
Where should we go dancing?
The fashion crowd heads to Le Baron or Arkham.
Where should we head post-party?
Back in the day it was about Dragon Club but these days I’m off to bed.
Where’s good for a pre-bedtime tipple?
Mardi Gras is quiet but ideal for a late-night cocktail. The Japanese barmen cut all the ice cubes by hand and their Moscow Mules served in a copper mug are legendary among Shanghai locals.
Where are the best galleries for design inspiration?
Architecture/design enthusiasts should head to…
A walking tour of the Hungarian-Slovak architect László Hudec’s buildings to see relics of the past and Shanghai Urban Space Art Season to see future visions.
For the best of old Shanghai visit…
Which one tourist attraction is actually worth it?
Taking a boat down to the Huangpu River to where it meets the Yangtze.
A great out of town option is…
Moganshan is a beautiful bamboo hillside retreat about three hours drive from the city centre. Its where expats in the 1930s used to come to escape the heat of the summer and it’s still used in the same way today.
What one souvenir should we take home?
A Little Red Book from the propaganda museum.
And finally, what’s in your SUITCASE?
Your Olivia von Halle silk pyjamas for making like a local and pottering about the city in on a Sunday.
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